Criminal History Records Check
Popular television programs and Hollywood movies make it seem easy
to retrieve the criminal history of an individual. Simply log into
a computer database, punch a few buttons, and a few seconds later
the complete criminal history and mug shot of the individual appear
on the computer screen in front of you.
Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The truth is there currently
is no nationwide up-to-date repository of criminal history records
available to most employers or the general public. Though the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains the National Crime Information
Center (NCIC) database, it can only be accessed by law enforcement
agencies and by employers in specific industries mandated by federal
and state law.
Searches of the NCIC require fingerprints, generally take several
months to process, and the results and dispositions of the cases
(if they exist here at all) are often missing. It is estimated that
less than half of serious crimes are entered in the NCIC database.
In reality, searches for criminal history records must be conducted
at the various jurisdictions that exist throughout the United States
where arrest and conviction records are initiated and/or compiled.
The following is a brief description of those jurisdictions, and
what type of information may be available.
Federal District Searches
There are 91 federal district courts in the United States. Some
of the smaller and less populous states contain only one federal
district court while others could have as many as four. These jurisdictions
contain case histories of criminal charges brought against individuals
by the federal government itself. Federal records typically involve
white-collar crime, mail fraud, interstate trafficking, bank robbery,
and civil rights violations. The information that is released can
be sketchy at times and many older files are archived at different
hard-to-access regional locations. These district court records
are not shared between districts, and the records are not "passed
down" to the state or county jurisdictions.
All states have a central state agency whose purpose is to collect
criminal record information from state police and the court system.
Suffice it to say, though, that the fair employment laws of our
50 states are widely divergent as they pertain to arrest and conviction
records. In some states, access to this information is reserved
solely for law enforcement agencies. Other states have severely
restrictive policies and require extensive release forms and/or
require the use of fingerprintsresulting in tremendous delays
in obtaining the desired information. Some states will only release
felony convictions and omit misdemeanor records, restrict the release
of data to a limited number of years, or will not show pending cases.
And to top it off, there are many stories of records not making
it from the many state and county courthouses to the centralized
record centercalling into question the reliability of the
repository data. Nonetheless, the benefit of statewide breadth,
as opposed to county searches, may outweigh some of the drawbacks.
As with federal searches, state name-based searches are limited
to the state in which the search is conducted and do not reveal
criminal records from other states. Refer to our Public
Records Fee Schedule for a list of the statewide searches currently
available to us.
Every state is divided into multiple county level court jurisdictions.
A total of 3,072 of these exist across the United Statesall
of which can be accessed. In those states where statewide records
are unavailable or unreliable, checking criminal records at the
county level is a must. County sites provide the most complete,
accurate, and up-to-date information concerning cases and adjudication
from their own courts. Turnaround times are also generally much
quicker with results received in days rather than weeks or months.
It is also possible in many counties to actually retrieve copies
of case documents and transcripts to provide further insight into
the details surrounding a criminal offense. This option doesn't
exist at most federal or state jurisdictions. As with federal and
state searches, county name-based searches are limited to the county
in which the search is conducted and do not reveal criminal records
from other counties.
The state repository and county-by-county methods are not true
alternatives to proper due diligence. Each has strengths the other
cannot duplicate. Each has limitations only the other can solve.
To be as accurate and complete as possible, both methods of research
should be used whenever possible and federal district searches should
be added for key positions of trust, as you so determine.